I was running after you. Over the cold white tiles of the boarding area. In the haunting thousand-y ear-old silence. My panting grew louder in my ears with every step, turning the taste in my throat bitter. The international flights area was on the other side. It wasn’t the Imam Khomeini Airport; it looked more like Mehrabad. The boarding area kept moving farther and farther away, but somehow I arrived at the gate. You had your back to me, but I recognized you. You were wearing your light blue coat and you stood there, holding on to your carry-on, waiting calmly. The light was blindingly white. I could only see the light and you. A light blue spot in absolute white. I called your name. You began to walk away, gaining distance. You were sliding over the floor tiles. I ran, reached out my hand, and grabbed yours. Your hand remained in mine, and the airplane took off.
I’m still at the threshold of dreams, that painful threshold between sleeping and staying awake that traps an endless yawn in my cells. I’ve forced my eyes all the way open to end this suffering. I notice the half-open door of the closet in front of me and the unlit lamp on a nightstand full of dirty glasses, a broken clock, and some books. Your books. I run my hand over the sheet next to me. You’re not there. No one is there. Where am I? How old am I? What day is it? I don’t know. The only thing I know is I’m not feeling well. I taste the bitterness deep in my throat and something is fluttering in my heart. I’m thirsty. I have to remember. I pull my left hand out from under my body. The stainless steel watch has left marks on my sweaty wrist. Eleven fifteen. When did it get so late? I close my eyes and squeeze my head in my hands. I think about yesterday, the day before yesterday. I remember it’s Sunday and I have a meeting. I throw the blanket to the side.
When I picked up the phone, he had said, “Hello, Ms. Leyla. I’m Amir Salehi. Saghar gave me your number.”
He had said they were starting a newspaper. That they are going to publish three arts and culture pages every day. One page goes to print around noon, the other two in the evening. He had said if I had the time and was interested, I should stop by the office Sunday afternoon.
I do have time. As much time as he wants. In the past four months, I haven’t had anything except for useless time. Wasted time, time that is not of my life, that doesn’t take anything from it or add anything to it. I didn’t get along with the editor in chief of the weekly I was working for. Four months ago, he had stood in front of me and said, “Your article belongs to me, and I can do whatever I want with it.” I gathered my papers. He asked, “How great do you think your writing is that no one is allowed to change a single word?” I threw my books and pens in my purse. He said, “I don’t want to hear about you making a complaint ever again.” I threw my purse on my shoulder and said, “You won’t, ever again,” and walked out. He didn’t understand that the change he had made had ruined my article. Since the day I quit, I wake up every morning, trace the sun as it moves across the sky, step by step, until it is night, when I fall asleep. I don’t remember doing anything else. Sometimes I see Roja or Shabaneh—they come over or we go out to grab a bite, and then I come back home again. Once Dad came too, and we traveled together to Ahwaz to see Mom and the rest of the family. For three or four days, I don’t remember exactly. I do have time for work. As much as he wants. But I don’t know if I want to work or not. I should. I prob-ably do want to. I used to like my job. You should know that well—we used to laugh together at work. I remember my laughter. But now, what do I like to do other than lying down and counting the days I have left? I don’t know.
Dad said, “Let me get you a job at the National Oil Company. You could work in your own field. Earn good money. Build your future. And you’ll be close to us as well.”
I don’t want to go back to Ahwaz. Best to not look back. During my last visit, I realized I couldn’t. Ahwaz is hot. The heat rises from the ground and crashes on your chest. How many times can you walk to the sea and back, when it only takes twenty minutes? How long can you sit under the air conditioner that brings in a nice earthy smell, reading a magazine? How often can you go to Kian Bazaar and bargain with the Arab women over dates and pomfret fish and laugh? This time when I went back home, Ahwaz seemed smaller. Smaller than what it was during my childhood. I could cross any street by taking only four steps. Chahar Shir was now connected to Palm Square, Palm Square to Seyed Khalaf. The courtyards were small and the trenches left from the war as tiny as matchboxes. When I stared at them, they disturbed the images of my childhood, confusing my memories. I couldn’t relax there at night. I wanted my own house. My own bed. Our own bed.
Shabaneh said, “Come join our company. They’re hiring. We’ll all be together, like in college. It’ll be fun.”
It won’t be fun, I know that. I will have to sit at a desk every day and write numbers on paper, on plans, on the monitor. The fours will combine with the twos, the twos with the fives, and the numbers will line up one after the other and chew my brain. They will have minuses and decimal points. Zero, dot, three. Zero, dot, eight. The diameter of the shaft multiplied by the height of the vane, the length of the piston minus the size of the cylinder decreased from the size of the cylinder, and all this will drive me crazy. Like in college, Shabaneh will turn inward, and Roja will disappear behind her computer. Nobody will talk to me. I will be left all alone in that gloomy office.
Roja said, “Let’s pack everything and go. You just have to pass the language test. I’ll take care of admissions and visas. Why do you want to stay here?”
“If I wanted to leave, I would’ve left with Misagh.”
“You’re being stubborn, Leyla. Stop doing this to yourself.”
I don’t want to leave. Why doesn’t anyone understand what I say? And now, even if I wanted to, I don’t have the energy anymore. I don’t have Roja’s energy or yours. I’ve witnessed what it means to leave with my own eyes. You were there in my own house, and each and every form and paper that you prepared became a step in a ladder taking you farther and farther away from me. It was a hard process. You put together hundreds of letters and documents. You had them translated, notarized, and signed, and you made an appointment at the embassy . . . Appointment at the embassy? Today is Sunday. Roja had an appointment at the embassy early this morning. I told her I would wake her up. Why did I forget?
“The person you are trying to reach is currently . . .”
She must have gotten up on time and left for the embassy already; that’s why her phone is turned off. Roja is not someone to miss her appointments. She is strong, like you.
I feel lightheaded. I have to make tea and eat something. The moment I step out of the room, the chaos of the apartment over-whelms me. The ashtray is full of cigarette butts. You hated that and would keep emptying it, saying that the apartment would smell like a dorm if you didn’t. The kitchen counter is crowded with dirty napkins and dishes soiled with the congealed grease of half-eaten food. The glass tabletop is smudged in dirty fingerprints, yesterday’s newspapers and the ones from the day before and the past week stacked high and unread. My manteau is abandoned on the couch. I go back to the bedroom and hide under the blanket. This is not my home. I have to capture the day that is escaping me and make this a home again. If I go back to work and feel better and continue to feel better, I’ll take care of the apartment again. I’ll organize every thing. I’ll change the broken light bulbs. I’ll have my red furniture set repaired— the fabric is dirty and the springs are broken. It needs to be polished and a couple of white buttons replaced to make it look like new. You didn’t like the set. You’d grown tired of the color. You’d said you would, from the first day, from the day we went shopping for it. You and I, along with Roja and Shabaneh, skipped our noon class and left campus. Mom had not yet come to help us out. We were going to visit furniture stores around Tehran to pick a set so we wouldn’t have to drag her all over the city. Roja suggested going to Yaft Abad. I didn’t feel like going all the way there. She said it would be just one trip, but I knew she would want to take me to the other side of town a hundred times just for a few pieces of furniture. You suggested we let Roja do whatever she liked, and Shabaneh, as always, looked at us and didn’t say a word. As we were passing the Jahan Koodak intersection, I noticed a big store and a red set in the win dow. I fell in love with its white buttons and large flowers. You said, “Red furniture? You’ll grow tired of it after a few days. Look at the beige and brown ones. See how beautiful they are . . .”
Roja frowned. “How old are you two? Now is the time to buy red furniture. When you grow old, you can go sit contentedly on those ugly brown ones and hug your grandchildren.”
I loved the red set. I wouldn’t grow tired of it, I was sure. I looked at Shabaneh. She didn’t have an opinion.
“Both the red ones and the brown ones are beautiful. Don’t you want to go check Yaft Abad as well?”
I didn’t want to go to Yaft Abad. I just wanted those. The red ones that were expensive and too bright and would make our home happy. Like us. I called Dad.
“Don’t think about the price, my darling. You will be using them for many years. You should buy whatever color you like. Whatever you want.”
I did buy them. You weren’t unhappy with them. You passed your hand over the flowers and said they were soft. When Mom arrived, we went and bought brown curtains so that the decor would suit both my taste and yours. It’s been seven years, and the curtains are old now. I have to change them. If I start working again and feel better, I’ll sit down and decide which color fits the red better than the brown and change the curtains. I’ll make the apartment beautiful again. When I feel better again.
Excerpted from I’ll Be Strong for You by Nasim Marashi. Copyright © 2021 by Astra House. Translation copyright © 2021 by Poupeh Missaghi. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House. All rights reserved.